“In my unlikeliest dream , my dead are with me again, companions again, in an ordinary way; nothing of major moment to accomplish, no stains to cleanse, no oaths or debts to redeem: my dead are serene, composed, as though they’d known all along how this would be.”- The Covenant, CK Williams
In those endless early winter days of 2013, in which one day slid into another with soundless monotony, I watched my sister, Jackie, slide into an abyss. She had tested positive for HIV; and in that cynical way in which disease loves company, she had also tested positive for that disease once known as consumption; and by the end of it all, in July, her kidneys had given in.
Her employer, the government of Zimbabwe, had given her indefinite leave. Indefinite and leave: two words that when placed next to each other acquire a macabre menace. In this “indefinite leave” – a vast, borderless expanse – time stretches out without beginning, halfway house or end. But because anything can happen, because any day could be the last, time is also constrained. In this wasteland, random thoughts pop up, and the most arcane memories come to the surface.
It was as we sat in this monotonous territory when she suddenly said: “Do you remember when you broke my leg?” Startled, I looked at her, and replied, “No, I don’t remember that.”
Those were the weeks in which she had gone back to her medication. The first time she had thrown them away – no, burnt them – because, to fit in the reigning fundamentalist template, “Jesus has healed me”. She had taken the medication for a month before she attended a church conference, where, at once fortified with the word and prayer, she took the tablets and consigned them to a fire (hellfire?).
She asked me this while we sat outside our mother’s house, taking in some fresh air, a respite from the sickly smell of death and disease that hung in the room where she spent most of the day and night.
Of course, I couldn’t remember. But how could I have forgotten that? For her the memory was fresh, perhaps her whole past was coming back to her in a tumble.
Football mad, and for a long time the only boy in the family, I had free moments away from study that only football could fill. But there is a limit to the solo juggling you can do, or hitting a ball against a wall. So I got my two younger sisters, Jacqueline and Sharon, to know and play the game. When my usual football playmates were not around, I would drag my sisters to a field nearby or to the shaded ground behind the house.
It was on one of those days that I accidentally stepped on my Jackie’s ankle. We were about to go somewhere. I don’t remember where. The memory of the incident is a blur, like a dream when drunk, dreams mixed with alcohol; if my sister had not jogged my memory, it would have stayed on, in that state of forgetfulness.
“I lied to mama about what had happened because I thought she might spank you,” she reminded me. I thanked her, more than two decades later. The two of us, football conspirators, had worked out a plan to ward off “the government” – my mother. We had conspired while her ankle was swollen and pounding in pain, while she limped around. The selflessness of her act hit me again with renewed force.
It’s rather ironic that we had to hide this football injury from my mother, for I could say most of what has endured in me about football I learnt from my mother. I got my love for Caps United, one of Harare’s oldest clubs, from my mother, a lifelong supporter of the club. She regularly travelled, more than 100km away, to watch them play. The first team I loved was Highlanders, because my mother’s sibling, whom I regularly visited in Bulawayo, lived in Barbourfields, around the corner from Highlanders’ home ground.
In the 1980s, matches between Highlanders – Bulawayo’s biggest – and Dynamos – Harare’s biggest – were proxy battle sites for the tribal tensions between the Ndebele and the Shonas. My cousins must have witnessed awful panga fights on the streets of Barbourfields, a suburb close to Mzilikazi, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Bulawayo.
It was in our truce, as strength returned to her body, flesh to her bones and a glow to her face, that this football memory shot up. This was the happy aftermath of our fight. As I tried to get her back on the ARVs and the TB muti, I had furiously gestured at the scriptures, pointing to medicine and medical people in the Bible.
Don’t you know of the line in the Old Testament in which the mournful prophet, Jeremiah, bemoaned the bare shelves in the dispensary, the absent or exiled doctors. “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?”
Jeremiah might have been talking about Zimbabwe and its hospitals, where the hospital will admit you for burns but will warn you that there are no bandages to cover you, nor ointment to soothe. “We will write you a prescription to take to the pharmacy,” the doctor will say, “and you bring the medication”.
I also spoke of St Luke, the general practitioner, also a beautiful writer. It is Luke’s whose stories of Jesus, of the women around him, that are the most realised, which is to say the most human. But God, she countered, had taken away the virus that had laid siege of her body, wasting her away.
It isn’t so strange that I now contemplate mortality, the eternal and the afterlife, through football. That shouldn’t be a surprise. For as an adolescent, one of the questions I threw at the woman trying to convert me was: “Is there football in heaven?” If this God chap didn’t like football, or hadn’t zoned some of his heaven for a football stadium, or didn’t have multiple giant televisions in his lounge in which his eyes ached from watching football in South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Turkey, Democratic Republic of Congo, England, Germany and Egypt, then I had no business being with him.
In his Bible, it is written that God neither “sleeps nor slumbers”, which, come to think of it, is a fate worse than hell. But even hell has its light moments. For on weekends, this state of sleeplessness could be very handy. He could begin with the football in Japan and end in Brazil. By the time the weekend is over, he could have watched more than 40 matches…
But even football, like life itself, comes to an end: 90 minutes, occasionally extended to 120. Come to think of it, is there anything out there that isn’t regimented by the strictures of time, that isn’t allotted only so many minutes in this vast expanse?
So, wherever you are, Jackie, I hope you still play the game and watch out for stray tackles…
Zimbabwe’s first recorded HIV/AIDS case was in May 1985.
Gif Credit: from Jafar Panahi’s 2006 award-winning film “Offside” which deals with reality of women’s life in Iran’s patriarchal society. A group of women each attempted to get in the stadium to watch the live Iran-Bahrain World Cup qualifying match in Tehran but got busted and detained in a cordoned area at the back of the stadium. By Lloyd Gedye